Education Policy, Interviews — October 20, 2010 8:10 pm

Margaret Spellings

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Margaret Spellings on reforming education

By Matthew Bewley

Matthew Bewley: Looking back on No Child Left Behind—which you played a large role in passing and implementing—what do you think were its greatest achievements and its greatest flaws?

Margaret Spellings: It was absolutely a major game-changer in reframing the conversation around outcomes and results of schools as opposed to inputs like how much we spend, how much teachers are paid, etc. This focus on how are we doing, especially on closing the achievement gap, has created accountability systems—real, tough accountability systems—in every state. It was supposed to let us be more focused on what the issues are, and then get about the business of fixing them.

The flaw of our policy-making, of our system, is that we don’t yet know well enough how to fix the problem.

I personally think that the law is quite modest in its goals and objectives, but if you read about No Child Left Behind, people think, “Oh it’s so punitive, so mean, it labels ‘failing’ schools,” and so on. You know, we only have half the kids graduating from high school on time and there are still fifteen hundred failing “dropout factory” schools.

MB: So you would prefer a more rigorously enforced version of No Child Left Behind?

MS: I think that it could be tougher and extended further. The primary power of accountability in No Child Left Behind is in grades three through eight, which basically lets high schools off the hook. We’re not going to get to greater college readiness without more engagement and accountability in our high schools.

MB: How, then, could you best measure a student or teacher? Does No Child Left Behind do it the right way?

MS: No Child Left Behind tells states that they have to have a valid and reliable assessment system that can be used to compare schools. The states work with testing companies to develop their own assessment systems. Of course there’s lots of room for improvement. Testing could be more diagnostic, more rapid.  But to have valid, reliable, broad-scale evaluation—we’re talking 50 million-plus students—that’s not easily done with soft, squishy, qualitative teacher grade-books and portfolio assessments. You cannot evaluate tens of millions of kids and teachers without a valid, reliable, standardized kind of instrument.

MB: The Obama administration has enacted policies like Race to the Top and a reevaluation of No Child Left Behind. What’s your take on this new direction for education policy?

MS: I am worried that the administration is backsliding on some of the toughness and the accountability. I’m worried that the administration is loosening the leash on states, for instance, by giving out waivers. The teachers’ unions love it, but I don’t personally think that’s good for kids.

The Race to the Top has been an interesting way to incentivize states to put better policies on the books, but the proof will be in the pudding as to whether it works in a meaningful way. It also remains to be seen whether states will actually implement the policies that are now on the books.

MB: You also oversaw a commission on higher education. What do you think that American higher education in general—and perhaps Harvard specifically—could do better?

MS: That report looked at accessibility, affordability, and accountability. Accessibility means we’ve got to make sure our high schools are working at levels that actually prepare kids to go to college and be effective when they get there.

Affordability, we’ve all done a lot of work on. Frankly, to me, resources are secondary to creating a system that’s more user-friendly. We have a multitude of grants, programs, scholarships and loans, and it’s as if we’re trying to keep people out of college as opposed to getting them in. Have you ever tried to apply for a student loan? It’s challenging, and we could do a whole lot to make it a simpler process.

But the big news of the Commission for the Future of Higher Education is all-around accountability and productivity. We just have to find better, faster, cheaper ways to deliver higher education to more people.

So, what does that mean to Harvard? I think the private institutions really think all of this is for somebody else. It’s not for them, and they don’t need to be productive, and they don’t need to be affordable, because they’re Harvard, or they’re Dartmouth, or they’re Princeton, right? But I think there are opportunities for institutions like this to take a leadership role, not only in the scholarship but also in their own practices.

MB: So do you see a solution?

MS: I sure do. We need to be more productive, we need to use technology better, we need to be much more judicious about how we award tenure to faculty and require them to be more productive. I’m up here as a fellow, and it is sweet. It really is. But if you were looking around at the most highly productive institutions, you would not pick a university.

MB: Have you seen the new documentary, “Waiting for Superman”?

MS: Yes, I think it is really presenting a “teachable moment” for education reform in America. I hope it will raise citizens’ awareness of the issue and I urge them to get involved in the effort to fix our schools.

Matthew Bewley ’14 is a Contributing Writer.

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